Peru has focused much of its anti-drug efforts on the VRAE region, where Shining Path rebels are involved in the drug trade, but some now suggest that another region may have become the country’s top coca-producing zone.

In 2010, for the first time in nearly two decades, Peru overtook Colombia to become the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, according to the U.S. government. The 2011 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report (UNODC) estimates that over 61,000 hectares of land are being used for coca cultivation in Peru, with the country producing more cocaine today than at any time in the last 15 years.

The region known as the Apurimac and Ene river valleys, or the VRAE, a largely lawless area where the government declared a state of emergency in November, has traditionally been considered not only as the heartland of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla army but also the center of coca production in Peru. The Upper Huallaga Valley, where another faction of the Shining Path is based, is also a major coca producing hub.

However, according to some estimates, coca production is now moving northwards. Some claim that the jungle region of Loreto, bordering Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil, which is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country, has now overtaken both the Upper Huallaga Valley and the VRAE to become Peru’s top coca producing region.

Estimates as to the extent of coca cultivation in Loreto vary greatly depending on who you ask. Colonel Jorge Angulo of Peruvian counter drugs agency, Dirandro, recently claimed there are “no less than 25,000 hectares” of coca being cultivated across the region. The president of the Regional Government of Loreto (Gorel), Yvan Vasquez, believes the figure is even higher. He has cited field studies showing that there are around 40,000 hectares under coca cultivation in Loreto. If he is correct, it would suggest that more coca is being grown in Loreto than in the VRAE and the Upper Huallaga Valley combined. According to the 2011 UNDOC report, the former has 19,700 hectares under coca cultivation, the latter an estimated 13,000 hectares.

A third viewpoint is given by Ricardo Soberon, the head of Peru’s state anti-narcotics advisory body (Devida). Soberon rejects any suggestion that Loreto has surpassed the VRAE in coca cultivation, asserting that there are merely 3,000 hectares under cultivation across the region, less than a tenth of the figure suggested by the president of the regional government. Soberon has said there is “no scientific basis” for the figure suggested by Yvan Vasquez, claiming that “all of the reports from the United Nations and other countries show that in the Peruvian Amazon, and particularly in Loreto, there are no more than 3,000 hectares.”

Soberon’s denials fly in the face of intelligence collected by the counter-drugs agency Dirandro, which indicate that the quantity of illegal coca being grown in Loreto has risen by some 300 percent every year over the last seven years. In the province of Mariscal Ramon Castilla alone, one of the seven provinces that make up Loreto, authorities “have identified 7,000 acres” where coca is grown, according to Colonel Jorge Angulo.

Increasing rates of crime and violence provide indications that drug traffickers are moving into the region in greater numbers. According to Colonel Roberto Reynoso, head of the police force in Iquitos, capital of Loreto, there has been a noticeable rise in violent crime in Loreto, with drug-related killings increasing. “Last year there were 20 drug-related killings in the province of Ramon Castilla alone. Just last month three people were shot in the head and dumped in the river,” Reynoso told El Comercio newspaper. Although violence has not yet reached the levels seen in the VRAE, it is “only a matter of time,” Reynoso claims.

Recent months have seen a number of police operations against drug traffickers in Loreto. In September, Peruvian police confiscated more than 300 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride along the Ucayali River in northern Loreto. And in October, police destroyed 15 drug labs in the region. In that operation, police also seized 1.5 tons of kerosene, three tons of calcium hydroxide and equipment used in the production of coca paste. Worryingly for Peruvian officials, the labs were described as “Colombian-style,” suggesting the involvement of drug traffickers from the neighboring country.

Coca production is certainly nothing new in Loreto. Illegal coca has been grown and drug traffickers have operated in the region for some time. However, the rapid expansion of coca production and the resulting increase in drug related violence is apparent in recent months. If he is to meet his target of reducing the area used in coca cultivation by 20 percent over the next year, Peruvian President Ollanta Huamala will need to come up with a strategy to combat coca production in Loreto and the tri-border area, as well as continuing his offensive against the Shining Path in the VRAE.

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